As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who grew up loving computers, Ricardo originally studied civil engineering in case he had to return home to get a job. But after the recession reduced the number of exciting civil engineering jobs available in the US, Ricardo decided to revisit his passion for coding and enroll at MakerSquare in Austin, Texas. Ricardo tells us about why he chose MakerSquare, his exciting final project Melody Map, and his plans to work remotely and travel around the world.
What is your educational or career background before you decided to do MakerSquare?
I'm originally from the Dominican Republic. I first came to America for high school, then I continued on a student visa, and went to college at Tulane University for civil engineering because I had always loved problem solving.
The engineering options at college were really exciting. I’d loved computers since I was a small kid, so I was interested in computer engineering. But I chose a career in civil engineering, because that would also be popular in the Dominican Republic. When I graduated, we were in an economic bubble, and it was super easy to get a job. I worked in a big engineering design firm, focusing on buildings, bridges, and other large structures.
I then went to University of Wisconsin-Madison for my Master's in Civil Engineering. But when I graduated in the recession (and as a foreigner), it was extra difficult to find a job. I applied for a PhD at a US school and got a student visa again. I worked really hard and found a job as an engineer with a construction company willing to sponsor me for my greencard.
What made you decide to switch from civil engineering to coding?
So as soon as I got my green card in January 2016, I applied to the Hack Reactor Network. I got accepted to MakerSquare, Austin, and I was super excited. I immediately put in a 30-day notice at work. I came to Austin and never looked back. I've been loving it so far.
You mentioned that you'd taught yourself how to code a bit. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
Growing up in the 90s, my father had a computer in his home office which his IT guy would come to fix. I would just pester the IT guy all the time, asking about MS-DOS, terminal commands, video games etc. I got him to teach me MS-DOS.
What made you choose to apply to the Hack Reactor Network and MakerSquare Austin specifically? What factors were important to you?
Did you at all consider going back to college to study computer science?
No. I had already been in higher education for seven years and didn't want to put more time or money towards that. I really liked the 13-week model, and MakerSquare costs $16,000. It does sound expensive, but the cost and time versus going to university, there's just no comparison.
What was the application and interview process like when you were applying for MakerSquare?
I went through the Hack Reactor application process. First, they have a challenge problem on their website that you complete to get access to the actual application. If you succeed, they deploy a problem on the website. The fix actually enables the website to continue working, which is pretty cool, and it brings up a form where you can apply. That was fun and I found that I could solve it with the knowledge I had. There were a couple of things I had to Google, but it took less than an hour to solve. Then I had to schedule an interview.
When I did the application, I checked the boxes for the Remote Beta option and the Austin option. They are different programs so I had separate interviews for each. The first one was with the Remote Beta. I was a little nervous and I didn’t do so well, so they recommended their Fulcrum prep program. I thought, " I can't have this happen. I need to be moving forward." I had my Austin campus interview scheduled a week later, so I studied the things that I had missed in the Remote interview. The second time, the questions were similar and I was more prepared, so I felt like I rocked that one. Then, I got admitted.
What was your cohort like at MakerSquare?
There are about 26 people in my cohort, including three females, and a lot of interesting backgrounds. For example, one of my classmates grew up in Korea, another one spent time in Japan.
My cohort was full of people with diverse career backgrounds. There were several engineers, folks who were entrepreneurs and decided to learn to code. There are a lot of musicians, and there are folks from the service industry, like bartenders and wait staff. We also have some mathematicians. Most of my classmates have a degree, but we also have some folks that are straight from high school.
What's the learning experience like at MakerSquare? Tell us about a typical day there.
The official start time is 9am. Some of us will arrive an hour early. The first hour is usually a toy problem where they give you interview-style coding problems. It's the type of problem you would face in a job interview and it's really good practice.
For the rest of the day, if you're a junior, you're learning. Junior phase is the first half of the course where you're learning concepts nonstop. There's a mix of live lectures, self-learning in the common space, and watching pre-recorded videos. Then you have lunch time. Every other day, you also have personal time where you can go the gym and workout. Then in the afternoon, as a junior you would have more learning time. You're also given a weekly self- assessment test. It's not graded and you have an hour to work through it. It gives you a really good idea of where you stand.
If you’re a senior, you’re working on projects in the morning and the afternoons. And then once a day, regardless if you're junior or senior, you also get a checkpoint quiz. Those are 15-minute quizzes made to test a very specific fundamental piece of knowledge.
How many instructors or mentors do you usually have for your cohort?
You have one lead instructor for your cohort, and one assistant instructor. They're your two most knowledgeable resources and they teach the majority of the big lectures. They work with Hack Reactor to make big decisions like updates to the MakerSquare curriculum, tweaking it to make it more current and beneficial, and they take feedback.
Then you have six or eight fellows who are recent graduates of the program who stay on at MakerSquare for another three months. They come and help you with the little things when coding, they are more like teaching assistants.
How far along in the course are you right now?
We're in week 11 of 13. I have just under three weeks left.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you so far at MakerSquare?
MakerSquare has me working in a lot of different groups. We work with different partners, and in five-person groups. The folks on your team come from different backgrounds, have different levels of technical aptitude, and interpersonal skills. Managing the interpersonal stuff is really good practice, but it can also be hard at times.
I've seen a lot of improvement in myself. I'm on my last five-person team, my thesis group, and I feel like we're kicking ass. We've gone through the program, we know which practices to put in place, how much time to spend in meetings, and how often. When we have healthy conflicts, we know how to get the best outcome, and we try to get the best features implemented.
Does MakerSquare give any kind of training or support with regards to interpersonal relationships and teamwork?
Yes, there's a lecture about teamwork which is important when you’re about to work in bigger groups. Instructors remind you about useful soft skills, tell you what to avoid, and point out unhelpful personality traits. They also cover Agile development, scrums, and sprints.
MakerSquare has a really good support team. If you want to ask for help, we have a Cohort Shepherd who is a recent fellow. We also have permanent staff who can mitigate conflict if you're having a personal issue, or problems between you and another student.
What would you say is your favorite project that you've worked on so far at MakerSquare?
My thesis project, because it's the one we devote the most time to. You work on it for three weeks – longer than our other projects. You get to push the thesis project as far as you want to take it. Plus, it comes at the end of the bootcamp so we're able to implement the coolest features, using all the technologies that we've learned so far. It's so much more fun that way.
What is your thesis project?
It's called melody-map.com. It finds your location, then shows you all the live music shows happening in your area, wherever you are in the world. If you're interested in music in Tokyo, you can actually sample the bands there through Spotify. You can also get directions to the gig venues if you click on the markers on the map, you can see artist bios, and you can buy tickets to shows.
It’s all built with React and Redux. It's current technology, and building that app was a great way to learn it. I really hope I get a React job when I graduate because I really like it.
When you decided to go to MakerSquare, what was your overall goal for when you graduated? What do you want to be doing when you finish?
I want a developer job with as much remote time as I can get, working on the latest technologies for web and mobile development.
Awesome! Are there any particular industries that you'd like to be working in?
I'm not focused on one industry. I just want to work on lots of different projects for clients, websites, and mobile development. Hopefully, if I have my citizenship in four and a half years, I plan to travel and work from wherever. That’s my dream so I'm working towards that.
How has MakerSquare been preparing you for the job search so far?
About five weeks before graduation, MakerSquare starts helping with your resume, setting up your LinkedIn account etc. Then, the last week is completely dedicated to careers. The career support team goes through their methodology, to show us what the best approach is. I haven't been privy to that secret sauce yet, but that's coming. You will also be assigned a person who will hold you accountable and talk to you on a weekly basis. They ask questions like, "How many applications have you done? How many have you heard from?” There are also mock interviews, and they help you negotiate offers.
Have you at all started looking for jobs or interviewing for jobs?
No. We have so much going on just getting through the bootcamp – it's 11 hours a day, and you have a lot of projects – so they tell you, "On your off time outside of MakerSquare, just relax. You don't need to be trying to study anymore." They tell us that "the job search is just going to take a lot of attention and energy from you. Don't focus on that while you're in the program. We’ll give you the tools to be successful as soon as you finish the program."
I have been meeting a lot of people. MakerSquare Austin is in an incubator environment with a bunch of startups in the same building. So without trying, you'll meet people in the tech space. Sometimes I check out the job fairs in the building. I’ve taken down some names of interesting companies which I can contact once I'm done. But I haven't sent a single resume.
What sort of advice do you have for other people who are considering a career change and going to a bootcamp?
If you happen to like whatever little bit of coding you’ve picked up on your own, then I highly recommend a coding bootcamp. If you're not happy with what you're doing today, just go for it because it's going to give you the most bang for your buck and for your time. When you graduate, you and your skills are going to be in high demand. You're going to have a huge range of industries in which you’re able to find something you like to do.
For me, the biggest thing is the demand for programmers. Unlike my other career, where there are cyclical layoffs, I only foresee computer engineering and software growing. And if you're not happy where you are as a software engineer, you can easily change to something new because the demand is so high. If you're not happy where you’re at, and you think you like coding a little bit, give it a shot because you can't lose.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about MakerSquare?
MakerSquare met and exceeded my expectations. I have never learned so much so quickly, and been so invigorated with something. I'm really happy. It's 650 hours of coding in this program which is as much as or more than going to college for four years for programming. I wish there were other things you could learn in a bootcamp, like a three-month bootcamp to learn a language or to learn Kung-Fu. It's a really awesome format. I am thoroughly impressed, and I want to do it again next time I get a chance to learn something different.